One of the things about this grandparenting lark is being asked occasionally to improve one’s knowledge of the East End of London by pushing a baby in a buggy around it. The Object of Worship and I had a very good walk in beautiful autumn sunshine the other day which took in two churches which I’d never been able to get into before: St Paul’s, Shadwell, and St George-in-the-East.
St Paul’s, known as the Church of Sea Captains, was (re)built in 1669 with the support of Thomas Neale (1641–99), who sounds extremely interesting: described in the ODNB as a ‘projector and politician’ he was a Hampshire boy (gentry parents from Warnford and Wickham respectively), educated at Clare College, Cambridge. He became an M.P. for various seats in the south of England, and rose in Restoration government service – one imagines he must have known Tobias Rustat – as Groom-Porter to Charles II (which involved, inter alia, making sure that all the sets of cards and other gaming needs were available when the king wanted them) and later as Groom of the Bed-Chamber.
Neale was put in control of the licensing of gaming-houses, and introduced an early form of national lottery; he claimed to have invented a set of dice with which cheating was impossible; and eventually he became Master of the Mint, being succeeded in this post after his death by Sir Isaac Newton. In spite of the abundant possibilities for peculation offered by this career trajectory, and in spite of having married the richest widow in England in 1664 (he became F.R.S. in the same year), he died almost penniless: his ‘projects’, which included the development of Seven Dials (Neal Street and Neal’s Yard are named after him) as well as of Shadwell and Tunbridge Wells, involved a great deal of risk, and some of his overseas enterprises, which included mines, salvage of shipwrecks, and a grant for managing the North American postal service for 21 years, were distinctly non-profit-making. It also seems probable that putting him in charge of gaming-houses did not necessarily turn a poacher into a game-keeper …
Anyway, St Paul’s had previously been a chapel-of-ease, built in 1656 by the Honourable East India Company, for St Dunstan’s, Stepney, but a new parish of Shadwell was created by the bishop of London in 1670. (In fact, the growth of the East End from the later seventeenth century is marked by the number of subdivisions of the parish of St Dunstan’s, which can be seen in this helpful chart.)
The 1669 church was rebuilt in its current (one hopes final) form in 1820 as one of the city’s ‘Waterloo churches’ and sits on a high stone embankment which has a memorial plaque inserted, now completely eroded and illegible, alas, above Shadwell Basin. This impressive wall presumably shows the original level of the church above the water of the docks – I can only say that it’s quite a number of steps up which to lug a baby in a buggy. But we were rewarded on this occasion by the church being open, with an ugly but (after previous exertions) very welcome ramp up its front steps.
Inside, the church is high, bright and galleried, and on our visit was a vast space full of children and toys: the mother-and-toddler group meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and looked great fun, but I had to confess our potentially plague-ridden condition and retreated, past the small playground and the community garden, back up to the Highway.
The Seacaptains’ Church is (unsurprisingly) so called because captains and crews made up – in passing, at least – a large part of its congregation. The notice board gives a history of significant people:
Jane Randolph Jefferson was born, according to the Monticello website, which draws information from the family Bible, on 9 February 1720, and baptised in the church 11 days later. Her father Isham Randolph (1687–1742), ‘mariner’ of Shakespeare’s Walk nearby, and his family apparently left for Virginia soon afterwards, as her younger sister Mary was born in Williamsburg in 1725. Jane’s 1739 marriage to Peter Jefferson produced (including twins) 10 children, of whom Thomas was the third, in 15 years. (Rather sweetly, the Jeffersons named their house and plantation ‘Shadwell’.) Very little is known of Jane’s life, apart from brief notes in family account books, until her death in 1776. In fact, one of the very few mentions of her in the writings of her most famous son occurs in a letter to his uncle (her brother): ‘The death of my mother you have probably not heard of. This happened on the last day of March after an illness of not more than an hour. We suppose it to have been apoplectic.’
James Cook’s connection to the Shadwell area was not merely practical: he was married to a local woman, Elizabeth (1740(?)–1835), daughter of Samuel Batts or Betts, landlord of the Bell Inn, at Execution Dock, Wapping, just down the road. They lived in Shadwell before moving to 7 Assembly Row, Mile End, where the family house was demolished in 1959 (there is a plaque …).
Walter Pater (1839–94), the doyen of Oxford aesthetics, seems slightly out of place in the rough streets of the East End docks, but he was born on 4 August 1839 at 1 Honduras Terrace, Commercial Road, where his father practised as a surgeon. After his father’s death in 1842 (from a disease contracted from a patient???), his widow took her four children, mother-in-law and an aunt first to Victoria Park and then to leafy Enfield; in 1853 they moved to Kent, where they had relatives, probably so that young Walter could attend the King’s School in Canterbury – each removal to a more salubrious neighbourhood than the last. One assumes that the later dandy and aesthete (the Victorian Web has a very good drawing of him when he still looked dandy-ish) had no memories at all of the uncouth surroundings of his babyhood.
The fourth celebrated baptism on the notice board wasn’t instantly familiar, but it’s arguable that Sir William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) had more direct effect on the modern world than either Jefferson’s mother or Walter Pater, because he is the man who invented mauve. Born in King David Lane (between the Highway and Cable Street) to a building contractor and his wife, he was educated at the City of London School, and after two years in which a natural aptitude had become apparent, he went to the Royal College of Chemistry (later subsumed into Imperial College London). To assist his studies, he build a laboratory at home, where (I quote the ODNB) ‘he attempted to synthesize quinine by oxidizing a salt of allyltoluidine with potassium dichromate’. Why is not revealed, but in the course of subsequent experimentation, he was left with a purplish residue which he discovered could be used to dye textiles, especially silk. He took out a patent in 1856 for this first ever aniline dye, and the rest is fashion history.
Perkin first called his product ‘aniline purple’ or ‘Tyrian purple’ (the latter a reference to the royal purple of the ancient world, which was produced at huge expense and in extreme secret from the secretions of murex shells in the Phoenician cities of the eastern Mediterranean. (Byzantine sumptuary laws restricted its use to the imperial family, hence the name Porphyrogenitus, ‘born in the purple’ for the offspring of a reigning emperor; an alternative explanation of the term is ‘born in the Purple Room’, a sumptuous apartment lined with porphyry in which the empresses gave birth.)
The word ‘mauve’ was adopted from the French name of the mallow to distinguish the new dye from the rather darker colour we usually call purple.
The history of dyeing is a fascinating area, but I must stop soon (and I haven’t even got to St George-in-the-East): suffice it to say that quite apart from his breakthrough in developing a fast (i.e. non-running, not quick) chemical dye, Perkin hit the jackpot with mauve, as it was thought appropriate as a colour to be worn in the slow transition from deep mourning (black all over) to normal attire, exactly at the time when (not least because of the untimely death of the Prince Consort in 1861) the various colours of mourning weeds for women became more and more strictly prescribed.